John Francis Knapp And Joseph Jenkins Knapp Trials: 1830

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John Francis Knapp and Joseph Jenkins
Knapp Trials: 1830

Defendants: John Francis Knapp and Joseph Jenkins Knapp
Crimes Charged: Accessories to murder
Chief Defense Lawyers: F.Dexter and W.H. Gardiner
Chief Prosecutor: Daniel Webster
Judges: Marcus Morton, Samuel Putnam, and Samuel S. Wilde
Place: Salem, Massachusetts
Dates of Trials: July Term, 1830 for John Francis Knapp; November Term, 1830 for Joseph Jenkins Knapp
Verdicts: Guilty, both trials
Sentences: Death by hanging, both trials

SIGNIFICANCE: In this prosecution of the Knapps by the famous lawyer Daniel Webster, the actual murderer was a hired assassin named Richard Crowninshield, who committed suicide before the Knapps went to trial. Due to Webster's eloquence, this became one of the first cases in which accessories to murder were tried, convicted and executed even though the actual murderer was never convicted.

Brothers John Francis Knapp (who went by his middle name) and Joseph Jenkins Knapp had a wealthy uncle, Captain Joseph White, who lived in Salem, Massachusetts. Captain White was 82 years old, an extraordinary age for that time, but the Knapps were impatient to receive their anticipated inheritance and decided that they couldn't wait for the old man to die naturally. The Knapps hired a hit man, 28-year-old Richard Crowninshield, to murder Captain White.

On the night of April 6, 1830, Crowninshield quietly broke into Captain White's house and went into the bedroom where the old man was asleep. While Francis and Joseph Knapp waited in the street outside, approximately 300 feet away, Crowninshield clubbed and stabbed Captain White to death. With the Knapp brothers' help, Crowninshield fled the house without being seen.

For a while it seemed as if the Knapps' scheme had succeeded. The citizens of Salem were outraged by the brutal murder of the prominent Captain White and formed a Committee of Vigilance to search for the killer. After two months of searching, however, the Committee had gotten nowhere. Then, the police in New Bedford arrested a pickpocket, who testified before a grand jurythat he was a friend of Crowninshield and that Crowninshield had told him that he killed Captain White.

Trail Leads to Knapps

Crowninshield was promptly arrested, but he kept quiet since he could not implicate Francis or Joseph Knapp without confessing to his role in the murder. Unfortunately, Crowninshield had told another one of his criminal acquaintances, John Palmer, about the Knapps' involvement. Palmer wrote a blackmail letter to the Knapps, but it was received instead by the Knapps' father. The elder Knapp turned the letter over to the police, who arrested the Knapp brothers. After Joseph Knapp confessed, Crowninshield realized that no hope was left and hung himself in his prison cell.

To prosecute the Knapps, the Massachusetts attorney general used the distinguished Daniel Webster. Born in 1782, Webster had practiced law in New Hampshire for a while before coming to Boston, which he would eventually leave for service in the federal government. Like many attorneys in private practice at the time, Webster occasionally worked for the state as a prosecutor.

The Knapps were charged with being accessories to murder. Both Francis and Joseph Knapp were to be tried before the Salem division of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. The judges were Marcus Morton, Samuel Putnam, and Samuel S. Wilde. For their defense, the Knapps were represented by F. Dexter and W.H. Gardiner. Francis Knapp was to be tried first, and the most important issues would be addressed in his trial.

Francis Knapp's trial was set for the court's 1830 July Term. Webster knew that his biggest difficulty lay in the fact that Richard Crowninshield, the actual murderer, had committed suicide before he could be tried and convicted. Under the ancient common law of England, which was the primary influence on the legal principles of all American states, accessories to murder could not be convicted unless (1) the actual murderer had been convicted, or (2) the accessories had been present at the time of the murder. Crowninshield was dead, and the Knapps had been 300 feet away in the street at the time of the murder.

Like every good prosecutor, Webster laid the foundation for his case by appealing to the jury's emotions. He described Captain White, who had gone to sleep on the night of the murder unaware of his nephews' plot:

A healthful old man to whom sleep was sweet, the first sound slumbers of the night held him in their strong embrace.

Webster went on to portray Crowninshield's stolen entry into White's home:

With noiseless feet he paces the lonely hall half lighted by the moon; he winds up the ascent of the stairs beholds his victim before him the moon resting on the grey locks of this aged victim shows him where to strike.

As to Crowninshield's suicide, Webster assured the jury that divine justice was punishing Crowninshield's soul:

A vulture is devouring it. It can ask no sympathy from Heaven or Earth.

Dexter and Gardiner tried to keep the focus of the trial on the fact that Webster had not satisfied the legal requirements for conviction:

Upon this evidence the prisoner cannot be convicted as a principal in the murder. A principal in the second degree, according to the law of England, is by our statutes an accessory before the fact, and cannot be tried until there has been a conviction of the principal.

Verdict Hangs on Legal Definition

Webster, however, raised the question of whether Francis and Joseph Knapp could be legally considered as "present" during the murder so that they could be convicted. True, the Knapps had been 300 feet away in the street, but they had been there to help Crowninshield:

To constitute a presence, it is sufficient if the accomplice is in a place, either where he may render aid to the perpetrator of the felony, or where the perpetrator supposes he may render aid. If they selected the place to afford assistance, whether it was well or ill chosen for that purpose is immaterial.

The perpetrator would derive courage and confidence from the knowledge that his associate was in the place appointed.

Webster's definition of presence would include Francis Knapp and, by implication, ultimately anyone involved in a murder who had come near enough to the scene of the crime to be considered "aiding and abetting" the actual murderer. Dexter argued strenuously for a conservative approach, that only physical presence at a murder could mean legal presence. According to Dexter, Francis Knapp would have to have been in Captain White's bedroom with Crowninshield to be considered present and found guilty:

To make a man a principal by aiding and abetting in a felony, he must be in such a situation at the moment when the crime is committed, that he can render actual and immediate assistance to the perpetrator; and that he must be there by agreement, and with the intent to render such assistance.

Faced with these powerful but opposing legal arguments, the jury at first could not reach a verdict, but ultimately it found Francis Knapp guilty by the close of the July Term. Knapp was going to hang, and now it was his brother Joseph's turn to be tried.

Joseph Knapp's trial took place during the Court's November Term of 1830. Joseph Knapp had testified against Crowninshield at the arraignment, but he refused to testify against his brother Francis at his trial. Therefore, the state dropped its earlier promise to give Joseph Knapp immunity and put him before Webster to be prosecuted. Dexter and Gardiner had lost the debate over the legal definition of presence at Francis Knapp's trial, so in Joseph Knapp's trial, they shifted their attack to whether the Knapps had been close enough to aid and abet Crowninshield. The trial record states:

The prisoner's counsel now offered evidence in regard to the place at which the principal was stationed during the perpetration of the murder, their object being to show that in that situation it was impossible for him to aid and abet the person who was actually striking the blow.

The jury rejected Dexter and Gardiner's last-ditch attempt to save Joseph Knapp, however, and by the close of the November Term found him guilty.

Francis and Joseph Knapp went to the gallows. Having successfully convicted them of murder, the state of Massachusetts also tried and convicted George Crowninshield, a brother of Richard's who had a minor role in the whole affair, of aiding and abetting Captain White's murder.

The whole Francis and Joseph Knapp affair would have gone down in history as a typical sordid murder if it had not been for Daniel Webster's eloquence. Webster persuaded the judges and the jury to expand the boundaries of an accessory's liability for murder. Once thus expanded, the old common law restrictions that would have prevented guilty men such as Francis and Joseph Knapp from being brought to justice were, over time, eventually swept away.

Stephen G. Chtistianson

Suggestions for Further Reading

A Biographical Sketch of the Cehbrated Salem Murderer. Boston: Unknown publisher. 1830. Bartlett, Irving H. Daniel lVebster. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1978.

Wilson, Colin. Enqclopedia of Murder. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1962.

Wiltse, Charles M. and Harold D. Moser, editors. The Papers of Daniel Webster. Hanover, Mass.:Published for Dartmouth College by the University Press of New England, 1974-1989.

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John Francis Knapp And Joseph Jenkins Knapp Trials: 1830

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